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The First Sunday of Lent
March 6, 2022

Watch this homily!

     We’ve done Lent many times, haven’t we? With mixed results, most likely. And here we are at the beginning of yet another Lent, loaded with good intentions but maybe a bit chastened by past experience. And now I’m going to presume to stand before you and offer a simple formula that I’m convinced will make this Lent better than the others. Are you ready? Here’s my formula: Put God at the center this Lent! Make room for God. Really make room for God! Can’t argue with that, can you?

     But how are we to do it? The scripture readings for today offer some help. The passage from Deuteronomy, “My father was a wandering Aramean” was, for the Israelites, something like a creed – not all that different from the Nicene Creed we will pray together in a few minutes. It gives the highlights of the story of God’s love affair with the chosen people – from their sojourn in Egypt, to the call of Moses, to the great moment when God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And the thread running through the entire story is, of course, God: God who called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God who called Moses; God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt “with strong hand and outstretched arm;” God who gave the people a land flowing with milk and honey, the first fruits of which they were to offer back to God.

     That entire passage from Deuteronomy is the story of a people who, at their best, knew that all that they had and all that they were was pure gift from God, the story of a people whose entire history, not unlike ours, was one of learning how to put God at the center. So often, they, as we, forgot how to do this, or they refused and went their own way, and then would come God’s wake-up call and they would remember that if they were faithful to God, if they put God front and center, everything else would fall into place. And so it would. And so it does.

     The gospel story of Jesus’ temptations in the desert is the story of Jesus putting God at the center. Jesus, of course, was God, but he was human, too. For him to have turned stones into bread would have meant putting himself at the center: toying with his powers, trivializing them, using his powers for himself instead of for the people whose hungers were far greater and far deeper than any passing physical hunger of his own.

     And for Jesus to have gained all the kingdoms of the world by falling down and worshipping Satan would have been the absolute perversion of his mission - he who came to proclaim the kingdom of God, not to acquire a kingdom for himself.

     And for Jesus to have leapt off the temple parapet might have made instant believers of the onlookers, but it would have been at the price of gaining believers who were not really free, and God wants only the homage of hearts that are free.

     My friends, the temptations of Jesus aren’t only his, they are the underlying story of every temptation we face, for isn’t it true that every temptation is an invitation, an enticement, to put ourselves front and center and not God - our comfort, our needs, our desires, our happiness? And the irony, of course, is that when we give in and do this we end up with a hollowness, an emptiness that nothing can fill, whereas when we make room for God - put God at the center - we end up getting filled in ways we never could have imagined.

     Maybe a little story will throw light on this. It comes from the life of Carlo Carretto, a favorite spiritual writer of mine, a 20th century Italian social activist. In his mid-life  he, like Jesus, was led by the spirit into the desert. For Carretto it was the desert of North Africa where he spent years, not days, with a community of the Little Brothers of Jesus. In his writings, he tells the story about how he brought with him to the desert a thick notebook with the names and addresses of a whole lifetime of friends back in Italy. Hundreds and hundreds of them. He hadn’t had time to take leave of them before departing for the desert, hadn’t been able to explain to them why he was leaving, and he was torn about that, and distracted. His novice master told him that he had to find a way to let go of all that, but he didn’t know how. But one day it came to him and he knew what he had to do. He took the address book and tossed it on a fire behind a sand dune and watched as the black ashes were swept into the distance by the wind of the Sahara. A rather extreme thing, it might seem, but for Carretto it was his way of letting go in order to make more room for God, to let God be right at the center. It’s not that he abandoned his friends; he just learned to love them in a new way, commending them to God in the solitude of the desert instead of tenaciously clinging to them.

     Dear friends, Carretto’s story is his story, not ours. But an encounter in the desert we must all have because it is there that we learn to really make room for God. And Lent can be that desert. Lent should be that desert. And deserts can be scary places , places where we are likely to come face-to-face with the Evil One who always wants to convince us that we are happiest when we put ourselves first. But if we can come to let go like Carretto did – to throw on the fire whatever it is that holds us captive - then God will be at the center, and we will be truly free!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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